The Lady Longhorns could be on a mission this spring to mold themselves into the title contenders they were when the team won 3A East region championships from 1998 to 2002.
The impressive winning streak came to a screeching halt last season when the team fell to third at the East championship showdown.
If the Lady Horns are to return to the form of old, they'll need to do so in a new conference and a new region.
As a first-year member of the 4A Grand Canyon region, the Lady Horns will be locked in an uphill battle against teams and opponents they probably never faced before.
Instead of challenging traditional 3A powers like Snowflake and Safford, the Longhorns must find a way to beat four-time defending regional champion Flagstaff.
Last year, the Lady Eagles dominated the Grand Canyon regional finals racking up 220 points. Second-place Page tallied 96 points. Flagstaff went on to tie for fourth place at the 4A championships. Sunrise Mountain (75) eventually won the 4A championship out-pointing runner-up Scottsdale Chaparral (57).
A nucleus of eight letter winners who excelled on the 2003 team is set to lead Payson's charge against an entirely new set of opponents. Among returning veterans, just two -- Jennie Cohen (5:24 in 1,600 meters; and 2:25 in 800 meters) and Hillari Hardt (32 feet, 6 inches in shot put; 111 feet in discus) -- are seniors.
The roster sports six juniors who have extensive track experience: Becca Easton, Autumn Herrera, Shaleen Holmes, Kodi Kepp, Britney Owens and Crystal Sprinkle.
Holmes has a personal best of 62.9 in the 400 meters and Owens has run a 63.5 in the event. The pair should give the Lady Horns a solid one-two punch in the quarter-mile. Kepp excels in the shot put and has unleashed a throw of 33 feet.
Among the newcomers expected to add punch to the Lady Horn lineup is sophomore transfer Tiffany Moore, formerly of Green Valley High School in Las Vegas. Moore will compete in both the jumps and hurdles.
Sophomore Tracey Fitzpatrick, who just wrapped up a fine performance in the basketball season, will provide depth in the sprints and jumps.
Junior newcomers to the program include Krystal McRae (sprints/jumps) and Lori Wing (distances).
If senior Amy Wilcox overcomes her battles with asthma, she could become one of the better pole vaulters in the region.
With Wilcox and several newcomers learning the nuances of pole vaulting under former PHS star Bo Althoff, coach Chuck Hardt is predicting the pole vault could become one of the team's stronger events.
Other athletes in the mix to earn varsity honors include Sarah Christensen (throws), Kendra Francis (jumps), Megan Miles (throws), KC Emminger (sprints), Patty Goble (sprints), Amy Buckner (sprints), Lacy Meyers (sprints) Melissa McLaws (jumps) and distance runners Alesha Huddlestun, Lauren Stewart and Jo Lynn Mendoza.
The distance runners should be a solid group in that they were seasoned last fall during the cross country campaign.
A total of 37 prospects turned out for the team when preseason practices began three weeks ago.
According to coach Hardt, the staff of eight coaches has been able in preseason to impart their team-oriented philosophy.
"The kids understand their role and we support each other as we work toward common goals," he said. "Nobody wants to be the weak link."
The drudgery of the preseason comes to an end today (Tuesday) at Walkup Skydome on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The season-opening multimeet kicks off at 6:30 p.m.
The highlight of the home schedule is the Grand Canyon regional championships, May 7 and 8 on the new, all-weather track surface at Payson High School.